in Houston, Texas

Ethics loophole leaves meals, tickets, entertainment unreported at Houston Independent School District

Friday, Oct 23, 2009, 04:32PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal

tickets1Companies wanting business with the Houston Independent School District -- and hoping that some wining and dining may help close the deal -- don't have to worry about their gifts becoming public.

That's because of a loophole in ethics rules that allows local government officials to keep gifts such as meals and sports tickets out of the public view if the vendor offering the gift also attends the event.

Based on a review of three years of conflicts disclosure forms, only one HISD trustee has reported receiving such gifts in which the vendor did not attend. HISD board President Lawrence Marshall reported receiving tickets to a handful of pro baseball and football games.

School trustees say they are regularly invited to events by companies wanting to do business with the district.

"I can't say that there's a high degree of frequency, but invitations flow," Marshall said. "Invitations flow, and you're constantly being invited to something."

When Marshall wanted tickets to the much-coveted Astros-Yankees games last year at Minute Maid Park, he called up a longtime friend with Quality Concession Foods, a Houston company Marshall described as a "joint venture partner" with food-services giant Aramark to supply HISD's school cafeterias.

"This was special because the Yankees were coming to town," Marshall said. "And I had asked in advance if (Quality Concession) could help me, that I would like to see the Yankees, and (we) go way back, many years back, and he said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. We'll have the Yankee tickets.'"


Marshall said Quality Concession Foods provided two tickets for each night of the Yankees' three-game interleague stand in Houston, and that he went with a grandson one night and gave the remaining tickets to members of his church. The games were sellouts, with more than 43,000 fans in attendance each night, an Astros official said.

A Texas Watchdog reporter called Quality Concession Oct. 8, described the story and asked for comment. A man who answered said he would call Texas Watchdog back, but had not as of the deadline for this story.

Marshall reported the baseball tickets as required, but if his friend at Quality Concession had been cheering alongside him at the game, Marshall would not have been required to list the gift.

He was the only HISD trustee who reported receiving a gift from a vendor, based on a review of conflicts disclosure forms filed since January 2007. The forms are required by state law of certain local officials, including school board trustees, and are meant to reveal whether trustees have received financial benefit from businesses working for the school district.

Marshall's tickets may represent only a sliver of the freebies extended to HISD trustees.

Loophole extends to other local officials

The ethics loophole is in state law and applies to other local officials, including those overseeing cities and counties, charter schools or junior college districts.

"Food, lodging, transportation, or entertainment accepted as a guest" are exempted from disclosure in a section of state law dealing with conflicts of interest.

Marshall also disclosed on his January 2009 form that he received tickets to football games between the Texans and the Tennessee Titans and against the Chicago Bears. The football tickets were given by Fort Bend Mechanical, a Stafford-based heating-and-air conditioning services company that has made $9.3 million from the school district in the last two years, according to the district's online check register.

Messages left on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8 for a Fort Bend Mechanical spokesperson were not returned; neither was an e-mail message sent Oct. 8.

Continued on ...

Page 2: School officials and advocates weigh in.

Photo of tickets by flickr user ginnerobot, used via a Creative Commons license. Photo of Astros at Minute Maid Park by flickr user eschipul, used via a Creative Commons license.

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